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Practicing Mindfulness In Addiction Recovery: A Step-By-Step Guide

Published on March 23, 2021
Practicing Mindfulness In Addiction Recovery: A Step-By-Step Guide

Millions of individuals and families in the United States are affected by substance abuse and addiction in any given year. Recovering from addiction is not an easy or short journey. 

In recent decades, substance abuse experts have identified holistic therapies, such as yoga and mindfulness practice, as beneficial complements within drug and alcohol rehab programs. 

Mindfulness practices are utilized by people in all stages of the addiction recovery process as a supportive coping strategy for managing stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma.

Here you’ll find:

  • information about mindfulness
  • benefits of mindfulness techniques for addiction recovery
  • step-by-step guide on practicing mindfulness
  • types of mindfulness-based interventions
  • how mindfulness is used within addiction treatment programs

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness refers to a state of physical, spiritual, and mental awareness. To be mindful is to acknowledge and accept the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that arise within.

Mindfulness as a term and practice dates back thousands of years and comes from Buddhist meditation, as a step on the path towards spiritual enlightenment. 

Over time, the practice of achieving mindfulness has been incorporated into a variety of physical practices—such as yoga—and therapeutic practices, such as mindfulness-based meditation and stress reduction.

In the last few decades, mindfulness has become a central, holistic technique used to treat a variety of physical and mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance use disorders.

What Does Mindfulness Involve?

Practicing mindfulness can be a multi-step process. Mindfulness can be a mental, physical, and spiritual process. Through mindfulness practices, you can both learn and nurture a variety of behavioral and cognitive skills.

Mindfulness can nurture skills such as:

  • grounding techniques 
  • observation
  • non-judgment
  • active participation
  • identifying emotions
  • effective communication

Mindfulness practices can support the goal of being present in the moment and focusing on achieving internal peace. 

Mindfulness practice can teach individuals to focus on the present, on their surroundings, or to focus solely on immediate physical or emotional sensations.

Being mindful can also teach gratitude. Mindfulness can promote graciousness towards oneself and one’s abilities, as well as other people and the natural world around them.

How Mindfulness Practice Can Support Addiction Recovery

According to the American Psychological Association, there is research to suggest that mindfulness-based practices can offer a number of benefits for treating behavioral health conditions.

During the early recovery process, it’s common to face challenges such as high stress levels, negative effects of drug withdrawal, difficulty sleeping, and a fractured sense of self. 

For people in addiction recovery, mindfulness-based treatments can:

  • alleviate stress and anxiety
  • reduce the discomfort of post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS)
  • offer a positive coping mechanism to replace drugs and alcohol
  • help prevent drug relapse
  • help break cycles of negative thoughts/behaviors

Drugs and alcohol can often be used to numb, repress, or cope with challenges. In recovery, part of the journey is finding alternative ways to manage these difficulties in a way that is supportive to one’s health and well-being.

Physical Benefits Of Mindfulness Interventions

Holistic wellness, or whole-person wellness, recognizes the inherent connection between the mind, body, and spirit. This is evidenced by scientific and medical literature.

As a holistic practice, mindfulness has the potential to offer several physical benefits in addition to those spiritual, mental, and emotional.

For instance, mindfulness may help:

  • reduce tension
  • increase strength
  • increase flexibility
  • improve balance

Physical benefits you get out of mindfulness practices can vary according to the nature of the intervention. Physical therapies, for instance, such as yoga and tai chi can improve strength, balance, and coordination.

Emotional And Psychological Benefits Of Mindfulness Practice

Research studies on mindfulness practice have identified a range of mental and emotional benefits that can come from practicing mindfulness within personal and therapeutic spaces. 

These benefits can include:

  • reduced anxiety
  • stress reduction
  • enhanced sense of well-being
  • improved working memory
  • reduced rumination
  • decreased depression
  • greater insight
  • less emotionally reactive
  • improved focus
  • greater mental flexibility

Mindfulness strategies can also be used during panic attacks, trauma flashbacks, and other instances of acute distress. Self-regulatory strategies can be used to ground yourself in the moment, process emotions, and calm acute distress.

Steps For Practicing Mindfulness In Addiction Recovery

Practicing mindfulness doesn’t look the same for everyone. Our environments, schedules, and other life circumstances can vastly differ.

Becoming more mindful of your thoughts, emotions, and body begins with having a desire to do so—a notion that is not at all dissimilar to the process of seeking addiction treatment. 

Mindfulness practice can take up as little as a few minutes of your day. But it takes more than one try. You may experience some benefit from a single extent, but you’re likely to reap greater benefit from a regular routine.

1. Make Time In Your Day

Many people who regularly meditate or incorporate mindfulness into their addiction recovery actively seek to find time in their day to practice being more mindful. 

If you have a set schedule for most days, you might choose to find some time within your schedule to set aside for this. 

Suggested times for mindfulness practice include:

  • after waking up in the morning
  • during a work break
  • after getting off work 
  • in the evening before bed

Find a time of day where you feel that could benefit from being more present and allowing yourself the space to decompress. 

Meditating early in the morning might help you feel ready to face the day. At night, it may be a useful strategy to help you calm racing thoughts and wind down.

2. Identify A Mindfulness Technique

There are a wide range of mindfulness-based techniques and strategies you can utilize in your day-to-day life. Some mindfulness-based practices are physical, while others are solely a mental or emotional practice. 

This can include:

  • stretching
  • breathing exercises
  • body scans
  • yoga
  • meditation

Mindfulness practices can be as structured or flexible as you wish. Mindfulness-based treatment interventions offer a structured format for using mindfulness as part of a treatment program.

But mindfulness can also be an activity you engage in on your own time, in whatever way feels comfortable and beneficial for you. You may find online videos, classes, or other resources to guide you through mindfulness-based practices.

3. Be Present In The Moment

At any given time in the day, your mind might be focused on a variety of things: work, school, children, tasks that need to be accomplished, and yes, perhaps urges to turn to drugs or alcohol. 

To be mindful is to allow yourself to be present in the moment. Mindfulness strategies can help reduce external distractions and give you the space to focus your attention on the present. This can be a useful strategy if you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious.

Being present in the current moment can allow you to experience reality as it is—and not just as you might perceive it during a time of duress. Observe the objects around you. Name these objects out loud. Describe what you see, hear, smell, taste.

4. Focus On Your Breathing

One breath in, one breath out. Many of us have heard that before. Mindful breathing exercises can create a focal point to center your attention: focus on the breath. 

One breath in, one breath out. Breathe in, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four. 

Allow all else to fall away. Notice the sensation of the air coming in and out of your nose, your mouth. Extend your exhalation. 

Mindfulness breathing exercises can be practiced for a few moments or a few minutes at a time. During a lunch break. At a stoplight. In bed as you wake up, or as you prepare to fall asleep.

Using mindful breathing exercises can help regulate a racing heart, racing thoughts, and give you space to simply breathe. Recharge. Ground yourself in the present moment.

5. Acknowledge Your Thoughts And Emotions

To be mindful is to be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in your body—and to accept them for what they are. 

Mindfulness encourages individuals to accept what they’re thinking, even if those thoughts are painful or ugly. Accept delight, joy, pain, sadness, and grief.

Addiction thrives in secrecy, avoidance, and repression. Recognizing our thoughts and emotions—whether they’re supportive or unsupportive—is the first step towards challenging them. Acknowledging unsupportive thoughts or urges gives you the opportunity to overcome.

What Types Of Treatment Interventions Incorporate Mindfulness?

Mindfulness practice is incorporated into a variety of interventions for treating mental health and behavioral disorders, including substance use disorders. 

The last few decades in particular have seen greater interest in developing mindfulness-based interventions and exploring their potential benefits.

Mindfulness-based treatment interventions include:

  • mindfulness-based relapse prevention
  • mindfulness-based exposure therapy
  • mindfulness-based stress reduction
  • mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • mindfulness-based therapeutic community treatment
  • acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

Mindfulness-based interventions have various origin stories, and their use within treatment settings has shifted over time. Their structure and length can also vary, depending on the treatment provider and personal factors. 

Behavioral therapies that incorporate mindfulness techniques, for instance, may be used in an individual or group setting. A counselor may ask that you practice mindfulness techniques between counseling sessions, or in-session. 

How Mindfulness Fits Within Addiction Treatment Programs

Mindfulness practice can offer benefits both for people who are in the early stages of their recovery journey and throughout the rest of your life. 

For some people, the use of mindfulness practice may begin during a substance abuse rehab program. Many drug and alcohol rehab centers across the United States offer holistic therapies such as mindfulness-based stress reduction and relapse prevention practices.

Mindfulness therapies can be offered alongside traditional treatment services such as:

Mindfulness-based treatment interventions may be offered during inpatient rehab, day treatment, and outpatient rehab programs.

Although not a complete treatment by itself, mindfulness-based treatment can be a supportive component within an addiction treatment program to promote long-term recovery and prevent relapse.

Does Mindfulness Practice Work For Everyone?

Treatment interventions that emphasize mindfulness and meditation may not equally benefit everyone. The same can be said for any treatment intervention. 

Even so, there can be benefits to trying mindfulness techniques at different stages in your recovery journey. For some people, mindfulness may become more helpful after they’ve reached a certain stage in their treatment or recovery process. 

As the mind and body begins to heal, or perhaps you’ve developed a keener sense of what feels supportive to your health, you may find greater use in strategies that can support greater self-awareness, focus, and self-compassion.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.
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